It was past midnight and we were driving home when I broached the subject. “Who can we set him up with?”
“I was already considering it,” my husband answered a bit too quickly. “Actually, it’s all I’ve been thinking about since we walked out of the theater.”
We had spent the evening at a big Broadway production. A friend from high school had a prominent role. I’d seen Andy rarely in the years since we’d graduated, at weddings mostly. Still, I was eager to cheer his success. It was exciting, but I was dreading the visit backstage after the show. I hate feeling like a hanger-on, waiting around awkwardly while I try not to look like a gawker.
This time was different, though. Andy was so sweet and generous, asking about our kids and excitedly introducing us to the actors. I felt not at all a gawker, more a visitor to a friend’s for an intimate dinner party. When my husband asked Andy if he was involved with anyone, Andy—looking almost longingly at the iPhone pic of our brood—answered, “No, I’m all alone.”
And so there we were, stuck in construction traffic at one o’clock in the morning, paging through our mental Rolodexes under “Jewish gay men, 30s, artsy.” After trying on a few matches for size, we both settled on someone we thought would be a great match: Jeremy. He was sweet, smart, good-looking, and a successful musician to boot. A little younger, maybe. There was only one problem.
We weren’t positive he was gay.
Well, it doesn’t always come up. I mean, we kind of assumed he was gay, but I couldn’t tell you precisely why. And when, exactly, is the right time to ask? Maybe it could be added to the requisite question list when you invite someone to dinner. “Any food restrictions? Allergies? Vegetarian? Gay or straight? Gluten-free?” Not exactly practical.
Because my husband is a rabbi and our family is religious, gay people are sometimes unsure whether they should reveal their orientation to us, concerned we might reject them—or try to turn them. But keeping the laws of Shabbat should not cause a person to be less compassionate or understanding. As far as I’m concerned, if a Jew reads the Torah and her takeaway is a list of people she’ll never accept into her “club,” then she’s missed the point.
Someday in the not-so-distant future, I choose to believe, the sight of Yeshiva kids walking into school with their two Abbas will be old hat. In the meantime, I identify with those Abbas in so many ways. As a religious Jew and a feminist, I have to gauge how “out” I can be in all kinds of situations.
Is this the kind of Orthodox shul where I can wear a tallit when I pray? Can I go into this bookstore and buy a Gemara and reveal that it’s for me? Or would it be safer to say it’s for my son? And lest someone think I’m being paranoid, I relate this story that happened two weeks ago. I started an online conversation about women wearing kippah and tzitzit in Jerusalem. The response I got from one woman was chilling. If you are interested in being safe, she said, you won’t ever do something like that. Someone could, God forbid, break your jaw. Or, God forbid, throw acid in your face. It was like a conversation out of “The Godfather.”
I’m a mother of four with a masters degree, but part of me remains a 12-year-old girl, angry as her body begins to betray her and advertise her sex on the outside. When your sexuality and gender are the first things people notice about you, it’s exhausting. I get it. But still, I was determined to make the match.
After discreetly inquiring with an acquaintance of Jeremy’s (who couldn’t answer with any certainty), I realized my best option was to be direct. My husband agreed to take one for the team. He casually texted Jeremy to give him a call when he had a chance. Jeremy called back. While they talked, I did what I often do when faced with an awkward situation: I hid.
While I cowered idiotically in the next room, I thought about the conversation I had had with my kids the previous night when they overheard us discussing our predicament. Why, they wanted to know, had we been assuming Jeremy was gay? How could you tell just by looking at him, or having a conversation? “You’re just stereotyping!” they insisted. I knew they were wrong, but I was having trouble with the why.
The truth is, we’re constantly making assumptions about people based on superficial evidence—the car they drive, the shoes they wear, their accent, their haircut. Using these limited clues, we determine class, education, politics, religion. Sexuality is more complicated, though. As a child, I was a serious ballet dancer. Dance had a culture of its own, but even then I noticed that some teachers and choreographers deliberately and consciously carried their delicate movements with them outside the studio. It was complicated to be out in the eighties. Yet these men proudly announced, by the tiny choices they made about how to present themselves to the world, who they were.
As self-involved ten and eleven year olds, my fellow dancers and I didn’t dwell on the private lives of our teachers. As far as we were concerned, they vanished into thin air when we left the building. So when one of our favorites stopped teaching, and didn’t even attend our performances, we felt only a vague annoyance that we’d have to get used to a new set of expectations with our next instructor. A year or so later, when we heard that he had died, you could almost see the little light bulbs clicking on above our identical, perfectly groomed buns. Oh. Our hunch was correct. No judgment. Just sadness.
I suppose that’s what I want my kids to know: thinking someone is gay is only bad if you believe being gay is bad. It’s the negative judgment that’s harmful—not the supposition itself.
I got the transcript of the conversation as soon as my husband gave me the all-clear.
“Jeremy,” he’d started, “can I ask you a strange question?”
“Are you interested in being set up?”
Pause. “Well… I’d be interested, but there’s a twist.”
And here, I’m pained to admit, is where my husband was a rock star, while I hid in other room with a pillow over my head, mortified by the awkwardness of the situation. “So,” he replied, “if the twist has anything to do with the fact that the person we had in mind for you is a man, you’re in luck.”
There’s a Jewish tradition, more a superstition, I suppose, that anyone who makes three matches—presumably ending in a wedding—is automatically granted entrance into the world to come. It’s holy work, to help people find partners and build homes together. I don’t want to go back to a time when people felt compelled to extinguish a piece of their essence in order to conform. But all the uncertainty is a little too stressful for me, I’m not sure I can handle the pressure. I’ll take my chances with charity and good deeds.